David Moschella: "Disruptive Innovation" is More Relevant Than Ever

ATN-300InsightaaS: As noted in an earlier post, we're taking advantage of this last week in August to provide some additional commentary on a couple of the 'hot topics' that we've seen through the summer. On Wednesday, we highlighted a Gartner piece with a skeptical perspective on crowdfunding, which joined a previous ATN entry (focusing on a post by Nicholas Carr) in questioning the "sharing economy" concept that has been advanced so well by Jeremiah Owyang (for example, in this infographic illustration and this analysis of the link between crowdfunding and loyalty). In today's feature, we take a second look at the criticism of Clayton Christensen's concept of Disruptive Innovation - certainly one of the last decade's most important management perspectives - by Jill Lepore, who (like Christensen) is a professor at Harvard. In July, we highlighted a post by John Hagel criticizing Lepore's approach ("a meanness that isn’t warranted") and conclusions ("she seems unwilling to acknowledge one basic fact of life: disruption is occurring with increasing frequency in the business world...what’s the alternative? What’s going on? Jill Lepore certainly doesn’t venture an alternative theory and she clearly believes that the phenomenon of disruption is far too over-hyped. Without rushing to the defense of the disruption evangelists, I would suggest that she should have done more to at least acknowledge there is a disturbing trend here that needs to be explained.)

In today's feature, we pick up this discussion by highlighting a post by David Moschella, who is (like Hagel) recognized as an important thinker in the IT industry. Moschella, who penned the excellent "50 for 50 — The Most Important IT Disruptors of the Last Half Century" (highlighted by ATN in July) is firmly in the camp of those who believe that Christensen's theories are important, and that Lepore's critique was off the mark in both tone and substance. Moschella adds an important supply-side perspective to the discussion, with a graphic/table that shows the change in industry leadership across five stages of the IT industry - mainframe, mini, PC, mobile, Internet - and the extent to which we are now seeing leadership cluster in Silicon Valley. He notes that "The facts seem indisputable. New generations of technology have been (with a few important exceptions) overwhelmingly led by new firms, with many once high-flying companies disappearing. Christensen’s distinction between sustaining and disruptive innovation is still the simplest and most effective explanation of this extraordinary pattern," adding that as IT-enabled disruption spreads to other sectors (e.g., manufacturing via 3D printing, a wide range of web-enabled businesses and models including ZipCar, Tesla, PayPal and MOOCs), "Christensen’s ideas are actually more relevant than ever." Moschella concludes by observing, "Now is not the time to dismiss the theory of disruptive innovation; it is the time to embrace it. As Microsoft has learned, even when you see it coming, it can be hard to stop."

"First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; then you win." As many readers will recognize, the quote is from Mahatma Gandhi explaining the process by which non-violent protest can prevail. But if one didn’t know the source, one could easily have thought the speaker was talking about the IT industry, as this is precisely the pattern we have seen time and again with disruptive innovation.

In the mid-1970s, the then thriving minicomputer industry ignored primitive personal computers such as the MITS Altair and the Apple I and II; it then laughed at the idea that improved PCs such as the IBM PC and Apple Mac were somehow threats to their superminis. But by the mid-1980s, PCs could be linked into local area networks to share files and printers; this made them a real threat to be fought. Alas, it was too late, and within another decade most of the minicomputer firms had disappeared.

This same pattern has repeated itself with smart phones, cloud computing, Software-as-a-Service, video on demand, and many other IT domains. The taxi cab industry stopped laughing two years ago, and is fighting (and losing) to Uber right now. Bill Gates never laughed at the internet, but Microsoft still lost its pre-eminent market position.

We repeat these familiar stories because of the extraordinary drama at Harvard University over the last month. In the June 23, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, Jill Lepore, Professor of American History at Harvard, wrote a scathing (even mocking) critique of the concept of disruptive innovation, as well as the work of its chief proponent, Professor Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School, author of the seminal 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, and numerous other influential works...

Read the entire post on the CSC Leading Edge Forum website: Link


  1. This debate is worth following; Christensen’s original 1997 work, the Innovator’s Dilemma, is worth reviewing more than once. I read Lepore’s criticism, so odd appearing in the New Yorker, and was happy when some decent rebuttal’s came along. There’s a lot at stake here in terms of understanding how new technology spreads, and anyone who’s career depends on technology trends probably needs to be familiar with the territory. I’m the the sales end of things, so the debate is especially interesting. And probably useful too.